Henry Wallace was a man of great talent and achievement. As a politician, however, he was susceptible to selective blindness or conscience-soothing self-delusion. In May 1944, he visited the camps of the Kolyma basin – the vast, permafrost-covered northeasternmost island of the Gulag Arkhipelago. The title of Robert Conquest’s 1978 book, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, is not a rhetorical exaggeration. However, Wallace failed to detect anything amiss at the time of his journey.
In 1946, Wallace and Owen Lattimore wrote that the Kolyma camps were “a combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” The book attested one experienced torturer as “a very fine man, very efficient, gentle, and understanding with people.” Wallace also wrote of the concentration camp commander: “We want for a walk in the taiga… The larch were just putting out their first leaves, and Nikishov gamboled about, enjoying the wonderful air immensely…” And the workers? “The Kolyma gold miners are big, husky young men, who came out to the Far East from European Russia.” Wallace and Lattimore surely met a group of big, husky young men, only they weren’t gold miners, merely playing the part.
Vadim Birstein’s article has many more details of the infamous trip and the characters involved. Wallace, unlike Lattimore, owned up to his error in 1952, when Elinor Lipper, a former Kolyma prisoner, published an account of her 11 years in Soviet prisons and camps. Wallace’s retraction can be found at Brad DeLong’s. Some of the comments are loopy beyond belief and repair.
Going back to 1944, there is are good reasons to question Wallace’s critical thinking capabilities at the time, including the wisdom of his March 1944 article on Fascism. But Wallace was a successful plant breeder and an astute businessman. Did he give a brief thought to the extreme weather conditions in Northeastern Siberia and the possible reasons why no settlements larger than trading posts or small villages had ever existed there, despite the fact that Russian colonization started in the 18th century? Did he really think that Magadan’s climate was about the same as Juneau?